The PhD-dilemma: are you ready yet?

Have you been pondering whether to go to grad school following your masters? Not sure whether research is your cup of tea? Hesitant if a PhD is necessary for your career plans ahead? Then the following thoughts are for you.

Recently, I have been asked on a couple of occasions why I decided to go to grad school and I conversed with people wondering what the right carrier choice would be following their masters degree. I clearly remember how difficult I found this question too. While working on my masters project, everyone was already talking about PhD applications. Meanwhile, lecturers strongly pushed us towards the idea that the PhD is the one and only right step forward.

I’m dedicating this post to all those people who are hesitating whether it’s worth committing at least 3 years to a PhD program, following all those years already spent in school. I don’t think earning a PhD is always the right choice. I don’t think either it’s necessary to apply for a PhD right after a graduate program and I believe that applying for one can be because of very different motivations and reasoning. I’m sure that various aspects of the decision and of the PhD itself vary by field. Still, I hope the following considerations may be useful for some readers.

I’ll start by listing a couple of things people on the other side of the academic career ladder (those already having a PhD) rarely tell you.

You CAN do applied work

I know a lot of people (including me) fearing that a PhD is all about lab-based, theoretical work. Now this may very well be the case in certain fields of research, but I can assure anybody interested in social sciences that the work to be done depends primarily on you: on the question you propose and the methodology you want to apply.

You DO have time for other projects

You have the control: you set your own timing and schedule, your research questions and any next steps. You have the responsibility over assigning time for separate projects and for your personal life. Of course this may somewhat depend on your supervisor too, I have friends whose timing is overseen by the supervisors, but this is not always the case. Again, you are in charge of changing the situation if you are unhappy about it.

NOBODY else is responsible

I regularly see that even graduate students happen to blame others for their mistakes or lack of work. I made this mistake myself as well, let me use this story to illustrate what I mean. When I moved to the UK, handed in my first written assignment and got back the results, I was devastated. Not only was it a low grade, but the feedback I received was  suggesting that I needed to work much harder if I wanted to perform better. I was first blaming the markers and the system in general: how many things and in what why are unfair. Then I realised the only one who could change the situation was me. It was entirely my decision to start a degree, it was my decision to do it in the UK, it was up to me to start improving my written English and it was up to me as well to learn more about the expectations of the English academic system. Of course it is never easy to admit that the work has to be done solely by you. But during your PhD nobody else would.

Okay, now a couple of things that can give a good reason to finally apply and start doing that PhD. Again, this list is mostly based on my experience (My work is mainly global health and international development-focused, thus my thoughts should be taken with care).

Why would you want to do a PhD?

  1. Because you are interested in something specific: It is this simple. You want to take advantage of the opportunity that you can spend 3 years looking at a question you are particularly interested in. You should be able to explain clearly why it is that very question that you are interested in. The PhD is a piece of paper at the end of the day that you earn by thinking and working on a question chosen by you. I believe this is the most important aspect and yet it proved to be the most difficult  one for me. I bet this part causes problems for people like me: I’m interested in a large variety of things. In school I did generally well in most subjects, not excelling at them necessarily, but I coped well and this didn’t help me choose a specialty.
  2. Because you also have a general interest in research: You like to look at things through the lens of a researcher, you enjoy understanding complex processes in a controlled framework. You can not do a PhD without enjoying the full research process.
  3. Because others have a PhD too: why deny, the fact that some other people you care about have a PhD definitely matters or at least mattered to me. If people in your field or in your family have a PhD, it may impact your decision-making. Social pressure counts a lot.

Finally, as I wasn’t sure if my considerations are in any way similar to others’, I asked my friends on Facebook why they decided to pursue a PhD. Here are a couple of answers, they speak for themselves:

“If you do research and work in certain fields of science, after a while it is basically expected and recommended to have PhD in order to get higher positions. So, in my case I considered it as step towards widening my future perspectives. In addition, for sure you learn a lot about publishing, structured thinking, planning experiments, etc during the preparatory years.”

“It isn’t the PhD itself that matters to me, but more the path leading to earn that degree. The studies you design, the validation of your research experiences, the clarification of your results and the publication of them…The PhD is about documenting a part of your life long learning. (The Hungarian original: Nem a PhD a lényeg számomra, hanem az oda vezető út. A kutatások, tapasztalatok hitelesítése, összerendezése(!), publikálása… A PhD a Life Long Learning egy részének a dokumentálása.)”

“Money”

“Pain is temporary, Dr. is permanent.”

“Because it’s a profound experience: one is face to face every day with what they love most. Plus, even the driest of PhDs is likely to be more stimulating than the average office role.”

“It seemed like a natural next step because I did well in my undergrad and masters. I liked to hang out with smart people and I also thought the research is about exploring the unknown and using your brain and being smart. (the reality didn’t meet my expectations…)”

 

 

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A call from Buenos Aires, the European dream and people who ‘make it’

This post is about opportunities and about how they arise. Opinions I came across regarding why some people ‘make it’, views on why some people are successful and have better career opportunities while others do not. I will present these through three stories, encounters with different people.

Back in August, I traveled to the southern tip of our planet, to Argentina, in order to attend a conference on youth empowerment through business and entrepreneurship. I landed a couple of days earlier in Buenos Aires and stayed in a youth hostel before the event officially started. One morning I had to wake up very early as I had a scheduled call with a regional director of a big media company in Eastern Europe. I wanted to make this call for a very specific reason: I was looking for sponsorship to fund a Hungarian delegation to attend the One Young World Summit* in The Hague in October. A few minutes before this call was due, I was sitting in the hostel’s restaurant, drinking coffee, watching the sunny but cold Argentinian winter, ready with my pitch.

Then my phone rang and the call started. At the time, I had a rather limited experience with making a pitch for sponsorship and I had a similarly vague idea of what it is like to negotiate with corporate leaders. I wanted to argue that by funding talented youth from Hungary with entrepreneurial thinking to attend a global platform of leaders just like One Young World, one can make a considerable change in those young people’s life. They will then go on and create ideas, businesses for the greater good, whatever that means. I wanted to showcase my own example too: had I not had the funding to study in the UK years ago, it would have been impossible for me to engage in any of the projects I am currently working on. However, my argument failed miserably.

The regional director on the other side of the call interrupted me early on while making my case and posed the following question: ‘Who stops others to go down the same route? Who stops anyone else making it? Why can’t other Hungarians go, study abroad, look for opportunities for themselves?’

There I was, not knowing what to say. Of course, hypothetically everyone could. Of course, on the surface, nobody is intentionally stopping people of various backgrounds living up to their dreams or climbing the ladder of social mobility. But is it an option, really? Is it really about one’s inner motivation and hard work to ‘make it’?

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Somewhere in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, where I made the call (the cover picture of the post was also taken in this district, in a cafe where I turned out to be quite exotic, being a Hungarian solo traveler in South America)

The answer came through another encounter. I met Hashi Mohamed** on the Ditchley Festival of Ideas***. He is a barrister and a broadcaster at the BBC, somebody who inspired my thinking to a great extent. The Festival of Ideas was a conference for young professionals mostly from Oxbridge and London elite universities as well as for Global Shapers. The environment itself made me think: could students from any backgrounds, any universities reach out and attend such an event?

I went to listen to the panel on wealth inequality (funnily enough in an invite-only event) where Hashi Mohamed spoke beside three experts with a background in economics. Universal basic income, wealth redistribution and inequality of opportunities were discussed, but to me, it was Hashi’s ideas that stood out. He spoke about our European dream, the narrative that I also heard a billion times as a kid: if you work hard enough, you will get there, you will make it, you will succeed in life and get to top positions. He spoke about how this narrative can be false most of the times, how your default setting (your family, the political and economic situation of the neighborhood you grow up in) will predispose certain careers, certain pathways for you and how difficult it really is to make any change whatsoever in this. About his own career progress, he said he needed a considerable amount of luck, fortunate events following one another, irrespective of his intellectual abilities. I resonated with his views greatly and I was thinking about how this could be changed. How opportunities could be more open and easier to access to a wider range of communities. While thinking, a memory from Cambridge popped into my head.

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I took this picture in Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, where the conference took place.

This third story dates back to the beginning of my masters program in Cambridge and it is more of a short encounter I overheard rather than a personal experience. I was sitting on a bench near the city centre and two students passed by, one complaining to the other, let me try to quote: ‘…and this guy, not only was he begging for money, when I didn’t give him any, he started to follow me and kept shouting at me that I’m a rich bastard…okay, sure, we are wealthy, but come on man leave me alone…’

Cambridge has a history of fights between town and gown; it is also well-known to be one of the most unequal places in the United Kingdom. This short conversation I overheard made me question whether or not people reflect on their own social status, their own default setting and if they identify any responsibilities coming with their position. Being in Cambridge means one is privileged, in one way or another: because of intellect, because of financial status, because of opportunities. What does this mean for someone inside and outside this environment?

Let me reflect a bit on these three stories. Accessing opportunities in our world seems to be about playing the domino game: as for myself, opportunities have so far arisen in a way that one led directly to another: I went to Cambridge and therefore doors opened up: I got to intern with the World Health Organisation. Because I interned at WHO, my CV became strong enough to get scholarship to the One Young World Summit (from which I had previously been rejected). Because I attended the summit, I had a higher chance to being accepted in the Global Shapers Community. Because I became a Global Shaper, I was invited to the conference in Ditchley and I could attend the conference in Argentina. One leading to the other. A set of fortunate events coinciding with my personal background. Some people are defaulted into having such opportunities easier, or in a more difficult way, or not having them at all.

If I was to have that call with a corporate director again and if I was asked where ‘success’ stems from, I would now have a somewhat clearer answer. I’m not saying working hard is not important, but I find that there is a strong element of luck and that of one’s default environment having a heavy impact on one’s access to opportunities. Very importantly, the way in which our society, at least in the Western world, is organised means that social mobility and access to information is not easily available to the general public. Our European dream, that working hard leads to ultimate success, has to be thought through carefully, we seem to believe that we can go farther than what reality shows us. Do we reward hard work with more opportunities? Is it really only the individual’s personal choice to climb that social ladder or bring about change? I do wonder how we could make a world where access to education, to information and to opportunities is more equal and career pathways are more of a personal choice.

 

 

*One Young World is a registered charity headquartered in London. It is a global forum for young leaders, with an annual summit bringing together youth motivated to bring about social change. You can check the community out here. I attended the summit in Bogota, 2017 as an All Bar None scholar for Hungary and made great connections, as well as some long-term friendships. I was looking for sponsorship to send a Hungarian delegation because in 2018 Hungary was not part of this scholarship scheme anymore. As the registration fee to the summit is quite high, I saw it unlikely that my country would be well-represented on the summit.

** I warmly advise everyone to read Hashi Mohamed’s thoughts, for example here

*** Check out the Ditchley Foundation here

Fujian and the limits of English

This post is about Fujian Province in China and about the limits of speaking English.

I visited Xiamen, the capital of Fujian in November. The main reason for me travelling there was data collection for my research, you can read more in depth about it here. The most important thing I learnt while exploring the region is what it feels like when your only means of communication is gestures and metacommunication. I realised how limited my language abilities are: the languages I speak fluently are all European.  Thinking back, non-European languages weren’t even on offer in high school. Choosing foreign languages to learn based on proximity of course make sense. However, I wonder whether this approach should change in our continuously globalising and inter-connected world.

My failure to communicate in Xiamen resulted in the fact that most of the time I didn’t know what the places I visited and food I ate are called, what they contain, why things happened around me, where buses and trains were departing. Receptionists in the hostel where I was staying used a translator app to get across the basics for me. I was thankful for technology to allow us to communicate in this way. On the other hand, not being able to speak made me spend so much time in silence that after a while I was craving for human contact. So during my last night, when I overheard three people of my age speaking in English, I couldn’t help stopping and asking them if I can join for a drink.

I joined a group of tourists from Sichuan travelling to the mountains of Fujian, to the villages and tea gardens of the Hakka people. They seemed to know a lot about the area, the Hakka people and tea-making. I would have been interested in learning from them, but the language barrier didn’t allow me to do so. I had to accept my lack of knowledge and my lack of understanding. This made me reflect on what I have been reading lately from the minimalists: to be okay with not knowing. To accept a lack of information and the lack of looking constantly for information. That even with the access to technology and internet, it is all right to switch off from time to time and allow ourselves not to know things.

On a different note, I was fascinated by the use of bike sharing platforms, such as Ofo bikes and Mobike, platforms we also have available in the UK. Ofo, with a fleet of about 50 bikes, was introduced in Cambridge a year ago and I used to use them quite frequently. I saw them in London too, but the bikes there are in a much worse condition, probably because Santander Bank’s bike scheme in London works so well already. Nevertheless, Ofo bikes in Xiamen are operating on a whole different level. There are everywhere, there are tens of millions of them and all are in good condition. I wish we had this in London.

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Ofo bikes in central Xiamen

For a couple of nights, I stayed in a district called Siming. The impression I got is that Siming is the ‘new cool district’ for young people, with bars and art galleries around. I passed by this cafe selling its products with a quote from Che Guevara: “Let us face reality so that we are committed to our ideal.”

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Bars of Siming

As I mentioned above, I traveled to the Fujian mountains with a group of visitors from Sichuan to see the ‘Hakka Tulous’. These Hakka villages are a popular target of domestic tourism and I was by far the only European-looking in the area. Accordingly, there was nothing available in English, so literally all I know about the place comes from Wikipedia. The Tulous used to be fortified earth buildings where the Hakka communities were living together. They are surrounded by tea plantations in the mountains.

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A Hakka Tulou

In Xiamen, I enjoyed walking by the beach in the early morning. This was the time when fishermen returned from fishing and people surrounded their boats to buy fresh seafood. On the picture, one of the islands is Kinmen Community, a territory belonging to Taiwan. When walking by the sea, I found military checkpoints and soldiers watching the sea, as well as memorials of past fights of these communities.

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How recycling should be done according to people from Xiamen:

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Walking down a street in a banana plantation somewhere in the countryside of Fujian, on the way to the mountains and Hakka villages. The climate here was very hot, very humid and foggy in the same time. It reminded me of the subtropical microclimate of the Turkish coast of the Black sea:

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This trip, as a whole, made me think a lot about our ‘community bubbles’. In the West, we use Whatsapp, we use Facebook, we follow BBC and CNN, a lot of us speak some English and we think that all these mean our freedom as citizens and as individuals. Experiencing when these conditions change or are not available made me realise how dependent we are on the bubble we create for ourselves.

 

On the role of TRUST when conducting research

Back in 2016 when I was doing my masters, I was studying how women experience living on the autism spectrum. Now, two years later, I’ve started my PhD and I’m looking at people’s understandings of global mental health and leadership. There is something strikingly similar in these two topics of research and it is TRUST.

This is something that shouldn’t have surprised me but it did. In my masters project, as I had previously written about it here, I was interviewing women on the autistic spectrum and staff members of autism care services. My first strategy for recruiting participants was as follows: I sent out a large number of emails to services and to platforms for service users and I was waiting for people to volunteer and express an interest in participating. When this strategy failed badly, I emailed leads of autism care services to see if they were willing to facilitate my recruitment. When this strategy failed too, I gave up on contacting people electronically. Instead, I started volunteering in some of these services and organised a field trip to those that were farther away. Only when women and staff members 1) met me in person, 2) spent time with me, 3) got a first-hand account of what and why I want to do, only then did they trust me with their time and were willing to participate in my study.

Two years after this project, I am one month into my PhD. As a first, exploratory work, I wanted to run focus group discussions with people involved in the adaptation and implementation of global child mental health interventions. There was a perfect occasion to do this: stakeholders from various backgrounds and countries, WHO and large NGOs got together in early November in a southern city of China for a conference. Following a series of lucky encounters (which I will write about in a later post on global mental health), I had the chance to actually travel there and do this work.

In the focus groups, I was interested in what they think about the role of culture in adaptations and implementation, what decision making processes across international and local organisations look like and should look like. Such questions, of course, can be very sensitive. Interests can clash, opinions may differ, issues with funding or politics may come up. So again, I was really worried about recruitment. Moreover, I knew I had to recruit on location: as I started the PhD a month ago, I only got ethics clearance two days before I flew to China. So how did I finally end up having participants at all and having enough of them for two focus group discussions?

I had gotten to know some colleagues from the field in Rotterdam the last year, in case of a big meeting of autism researchers, the International Society of Autism Research’s annual get-together. I met them almost accidentally, on a NGO’s reception that was held outside the conference. We had wine together and talked about the trips we planned following the meeting, as some of us traveled from far away. Some planned a visit to Amsterdam, others preferred to stay in The Hague. We went for sightseeing the next day. At the time, I didn’t think that these conversations over wine in a reception or over coffee on a touristy street of Rotterdam would matter later on.

Some time after the conference in Rotterdam, I attended a completely different event: a youth empowerment meeting on business and entrepreneurship in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Coincidentally, some of these colleagues were there too. I say coincidentally, but the world gets very small in niche fields like global mental health. So we met again, had great conversations and night-outs in the Argentinian winter.

Two months later came along the focus group discussion I wanted to run during the China conference. On the first day of the meeting, I was standing nervously on the stage, having five minutes to briefly summarise what I want to do and distribute all the necessary paperwork for potential participants to fill in. Having explained my research and distributed information sheets and consent forms, I had to then sit back and relax: as a researcher you are not supposed to push anyone to participate, the interest should come pro-actively from potential participants.

The very first people who signed up for my discussions were the ones I had gotten to know earlier in Rotterdam and Buenos Aires. In the coffee breaks, I couldn’t help overhear discussions about my study and one colleague or another convincing each other to go and attend.

There are great guide books on qualitative research methodology. The gold standard for me is Braun and Clarke’s 2006 work on thematic analysis, but there is a lot more out there. What I would add to these textbooks is the ultimate need to be trustworthy and to be trusted both on a personal and on a professional level by the audience one is interested in working with, while acknowledging the responsibility this means from an ethical and research perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

Little nice things in London

I have recently moved to London to pursue my PhD. Before moving here, I was told on many occasions about different stereotypes of life in the City. A lot of them are true of course. With a couple of posts from now on, I will share little nice things that make this capital a beautiful place to live in. Not much text is needed here. Hidden, minor details only.

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Regent’s Park, inspired by a Scandinavian autumn.

 

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I was living in Latvia for some time and have been craving for the Latvian culture and beer for long. Who would have guessed that there is a small Latvian bar in the basement of a hotel near Hyde Park? The place where one can find the unique cuisine and selection of beers of this lovely country in the Baltics. On the night when I visited, they organised a beer festival and there was a large family gathering too. I felt as if all the Latvian expats in London were there in that tiny basement. It felt comfy and I could practice the leftover of my Latvian language skills.

Meet first, then work

As an undergraduate student I was thaught that it is only your CV, your cover letter and your references that exist in the real adult world and on the job market. It is your previous experience that will help you to get to know professionals in your field. In Hungary, when I developed my interest in autism, I applied for a grant for a field trip across the country and did a study visit in various adult care services for people living with autism. And I didn’t have any difficulties with doing so, as my supervisor gave me all the contacts I needed. With her reference, I had no problems reaching any of the organisations, I felt welcomed during each of my visits and learnt a lot eventually.

So when I came to the UK I thought it would be nice to go on with this and get to know how social care and health care works in the field of autism. I very easily managed to visit what is available in Cambridgeshire. The presence and reference of the University ultimately allowed me to get in touch with anyone.

However, I desperately wanted to see the services of Scotland. The reason for this is that I went to the international conference of Autism Europe in Edinburgh back in September and there I learnt about the new Scottish strategy and was actually advised to visit services available in Scotland. So, being a passionate person, never hesitating about contacting people and asking, I did eventually contact Scottish Autism. I have been in touch with them for almost a month before my visit.

However, I had this weird feeling that they didn’t really want me to go there, as if they were sceptical about me being a reliable professional. They only let me visit their centre in Scotland but not their transition or diagnostic services and I didn’t understand why it was so, as I sent my CV, my research proposal, my ethical clearance and my references as well.

So this weekend I finally flew to Edinburgh. I took the train to Stirling and from there to Alloa. The research manager of Scottish Autism was waiting for me at the train station, picked me up and then told me about the area while driving to New Struan School. I spent a day in Alloa and got to know how social care and research works there.

So the school itself is for children living with autism – when planning the building, people living on the spectrum were actually involved and the design takes into account special needs. For example, the colour of the walls differ according to the function of the rooms. They have around 30 children and they employ 100 staff members working with the pupils, which means that there are at least 3 people for one child.

However, New Struan isn’t only a school: the building is home to Scottish Autism’s research centre as well. This was what I particularly appreciated. Researchers in Psychology, in Mental Health and in allied disciplines tend to forget about the real world and have just very limited experience with the people they are actually working with or looking at. Therefore the fact that these researchers are in the same environment as the students are adds something special to exploring autism.

Having visited the school and the research center, I also registered some interviews for my research.  Everyone was superhelpful around me, wanted to show and tell me more and more. This was the point when I figured out why I wasn’t allowed to visit more of their services. They told me that they finally knew me in person and saw my motivation and my interests and from that point on they would be more than happy to cooperate and work together on any future projects. It is not that they are closed and they wouldn’t want professionals learn from them it’s just the way they protect the people they try to help. So this became my final conclusion from the whole study trip: meet first, show that you are worth talking to and then open up for work in the future.

Pictures from the Fenland

The usual visitor in Cambridge walks around the stunning historical monuments, colleges and churches in the centre from Kings Parade to the Round Church. However, there’s much more to experience. So if you had enough from the mainstream touristic attractions, then I definitely have some suggestions: cycle or walk to the Fenland.

My British friends say that the Fenland in one of the most disadvantaged parts of the whole UK. It’s the marshy region around Cambridge, although most of the fens were drained a long while ago. The small villages and little towns make their living from agriculture. Compared to the stereotypical English weather, the climate is quite dry and windy (which you still need to take seriously, you get soaked one time per week on average in the winter). The landscape is flat and you often bump into windmills that evoke those from the Netherlands or from the island of Saaremaa in Estonia.

We have already visited the Fenland couple of times. It is worth walking and cycling as well, but for this latter I recommend to buy a map for bike routes in Oxfam, because GoogleMaps isn’t always clear on which way to go. The bike routes are all well-signed all the way.

For the first time, we cycled from Cambridge through Girton towards Oakington and through a natural reserve to St Ives. Just a little bit of taster:

The second time we cycled from Cambridge to Histon, Cottenham, Longbeach and then through Waterbeach back to Milton and Cambridge along the river Cam.

Finally, if you don’t feel like cycling, visit Ely by train. The train takes you there in around 20 minutes for 2 pounds with Railcard. We visited Ely shortly before Christmas, when they organised a Christmas market in their stunning cathedral! Besides, people are always proud of what they have… in Ely, you can try the “traditional Fenland tea” -go for it 🙂

TopTips in Cambridge

When I moved to Cambridge, my situation was quite unstable, let’s put it this way… As my college couldn’t offer accomodation to me due to renovations,  I didn’t know where I was going to live and on top of this I still didn’t hear back from my funding body if I finally got a scholarship or not. Under these circumstances, I really had to find clever ways of living in an economic way. So here in this post let me give you tips on how to save money in Cambridge!

There are a lot of options of where to do your weekly shopping in Cam: Sainsbury’s is obviously very popular, but Cooperative and Tesco also have stores around the town. However, I would warmly suggest ALDI in North Cambridge or ASDA in the east for the best prices. I found that everything is considerably cheaper in these stores and the quality is still good – as of course health is first!

You will probably need pillows, blankets, cutlery and kitchenware and other gadgets for your daily living. For these things, go to Grafton and look for Wilko and Poundland. Wilko offers quality products for home, while Poundland is the heaven of gadgets, it has the essentials for you: bike lockers, bike lamps, batteries, plates, cutlery, cups. What else would you need? Also, Poundland offers seasonal decorations for your room. And finally, unlike the Hungarian one-euro shops, everything really costs one pound.

Then, you will come to the point when you will want to go shopping for clothes, shoes and accessories. Well, you will find plenty of brands in Cambridge. However, the economic option is Primark: beautiful, quality clothes for 5-15 pounds on three floors for both men and women.

When you don’t have time to cook and want to eat out, I warmly suggest Gardenia, a Greek restaurant for hamburger or chips. The other option is Bella Italia, offering 50% reduction for students.

When it comes to pubbing and beer, the prices are almost identical everywhere. This was actually suprising to me, as in Budapest the more central you are in the city, the more you pay. Similarly, the more fancy the place looks like, the more a beer costs. Contrarily, here in Cambridge all the pubs look fascinating and there is not much of a difference in their prices… so just enjoy 🙂

Finally, for economic programmes in town, I will get back with another post soon!

 

Thoughts on ethics of autism and lifestyles in Cambridge

I’ve started to be interested in autism when I volunteered in a child psychiatry in Hungary. At that time, I was working in a ward for teenagers having psychiatric and mental health problems. One day a mother arrived with his son, almost the same age as me, whose only way of communication was to take off his clothes. If he was angry, he undressed. If he was hungry, he undressed. If he felt anxious, he undressed. I spent the whole week with him, and while looking in his eyes, trying to communicate with him, I realised how poor our understanding really is regarding autism spectrum disorder.

Having interned in a diagnostic centre for autism for a while, I’m looking at the female experience of living on the spectrum in Cambridge. I’m volunteering for the National Autistic Society Cambridgeshire and for Red2Green in Swaffham Bulbeck, these are both organisations helping adults living on the spectrum.

So the last week I started to recruit participants for my study and faced an issue I could have expected before… I was sitting around a table with some women on the autistic spectrum, they were all looking at me and waited for me telling them about my research. And this was the moment I realised how difficult it is to talk about autism and to be “politically correct” with a sensitive topic with a sensitive or vulnerable group of people.

I started to think of what do they know about autism? Are they conscious of the fact that they are autistic? If so, to what extent? Is the world autistic abusive? Or the other way round, if I start to use the terms used by professionals, such as person living on the spectrum, trying to be distanced, is that abusive? And additionally, the terms I learned and used in Hungary to talk with people about their autism may not work in England at all! Even if I have no intentions of being rude or provocative, I might be, just because of some slight cultural differences. Finally I decided that it is not specifically autism that I’m interested in, but them, those women who were sitting there and their life experience and it does make a difference in the words I used.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about there in the countryside of Cambridgeshire is the dichotomy of the high-profile Cambridge and the countryside of Cambridgeshire. When I arrived to Cambridge, its  elegance was almost shocking. Dinners, formal halls, winter balls, cheese and wine nights, small talks with world-leader researchers and thinkers – this is what is waiting for the Cambridge student, a fairy tale, a lifestyle I couldn’t have imagined before, opportunities and comfort for the brightest.

However, when the bus going to the villages nearby leaves the borders of Cambridge, the differences of lifestyles is astonishing. Instead of grandiose and impressive colleges, black ties and champagne, tiny small East Englian houses, twisting alleys and locals in GreeneKing pubs are waiting for the rare visitor.

You know what, when writing about all this I’ve experienced, I can’t help seeing how difficult it is get the right synonyms in English, it’s hard to depict a landscape, a feeling, the people around me with all the nuances. Let me finish this post in Hungarian.

Elképesztő a cambridgeshire-i kettősség. Az Egyetem tiszteletet parancsoló elitsége minden tudásával, hatalmával és gazdagságával, míg a közeli falvak helyi lakói ebből a fényűzésből keveset éreznek. Érdekes látni, hogy a cambridge-i kutató ezt a”kinti” társadalmat szemlélve válik szakemberré. A mások életét kutatva jut be a cambridge-i pszichológus, társadalomtudós, bölcsész ebbe a privilegizált környezetbe, a következő lépés az, hogy ezt a privilégiumot a tudásán keresztül megossza a “kinti” világgal.

Your cup of tea? – life in The Kingdom

Having left Latvia in late July, I moved to the United Kingdom to study Psychology and do some research on autism spectrum disorder in the University of Cambridge.

Interestingly, during the last couple of months, I didn’t feel living abroad at all. Cambridge turned out to be such an international town to live in that I hardly ever felt being in Great Britain. While Tukums, that tiny small village in the Kurzeme region of Latvia made me feel being the outsider, the foreigner, Cambridge welcomes differences from all over the world.

This changed when just yesterday I took the bus and went to Swaffham Bulbeck, a village between Cambridge and Newmarket, to visit Red2Green, a local organisation for people living with disabilities. It all started at the bus station, the MAIN bus station of the town… I was desperately looking for the ticket office, to ask what kind of tickets they have, whether they offer monthly or weekly allowances – and had to realise that the ticket office per se does not exist in Cambridge. Then I finally managed to buy the ticket from the bus driver, and felt if I was travelling from a small Hungarian town to an even smaller village. When I stepped on the double decker, I instantly felt the difference. Instead of the egzotic mixture of languages one can hear in central Cambridge, I was surrounded only by the locals of Cambridgeshire.

Thiy is how I arrived to Swaffham Bulbeck, a beautiful East Anglian village. I spent the afternoon in Red2Green with people living on the autistic spectrum with practising mindfulness.

Those interested in Psychology, stay tuned for the next post, it is going to be about ethical issues around autism and the differences between student life in Cambridge and patient life in Swaffham Bulbeck.